How to Manage Your PR Communications in Times of Crisis

On a daily basis, public relations practitioners seek opportunities to tout their brand or their client’s brand to journalists who they feel may be interested in including the latest product, trend or offering in upcoming editorial. Yet at a time when there’s increasing national discord and, unfortunately, crises such as hurricanes, mass shootings and acts of domestic terrorism, it’s imperative for these practitioners to pay close attention to the news cycle. There are times when it’s prudent to be cautious when “pitching” stories during a local or national crisis.

When Hurricane Harvey hit the south-central region of the country, causing horrific flooding and severe localized damage, journalists there were not eager to hear, and were probably irritated by, any non-urgent pings from PR folks. To put it mildly, August 25th and the ensuing days were not optimal in teeing up the latest holiday go-to products to the Houston Chronicle or other regional media. With 30,000 people displaced, and more than 17,000 rescues, the only thing that PR folks should have been doing is offering a helping hand, sharing inspiring human interest stories, and providing tips on local relief efforts and resources.

Every company and PR professional has a decision to make on how to communicate during a local or national crisis; some may opt to “go quiet” for a period of days on social media, or hold off on “pitching” non-urgent news stories. Others may change course from original marketing plans and instead offer expert thought leadership or resource information that may aid in the discussion and resolution. Either path is acceptable because it means the company and/or executive is paying attention and being sensitive to the news cycle, and subsequently being respectful of the people involved. The bottom line: unless a PR person can be a resource to reporters, who are busier than ever during emergencies, it’s best to lay low.

Some say that PR is all about the “art of the sell.” While this may be true at times, any “sell” during a crisis can be deemed insensitive, and rightly so. This rings true outside of the PR world as well. For example, during Hurricane Harvey, it would not have been appropriate for pharma sales reps to be setting up meetings with physicians to persuade them to prescribe their specific drugs to patients. Medical staff were stretched thin, and the only thing that pharma reps should have been doing is offering samples to aid in the treatment of so many victims. In a similar vein, unless a PR rep has something to aid in the crisis, it’s prudent to step out of the way until the dust settles.

Unfortunately, we live in a time of seemingly one crises after another, whether at the hands of another human being or via natural disaster. More than ever, it’s all the more important to be in tune with what’s happening not just on the national level, but on the local level as well. It’s the job of PR practitioners to creatively ideate the best ways to pique the interest of editorial and broadcast journalists, but the surefire way to have a plan backfire is not staying abreast of local happenings and how it is affecting communities.

PR practitioners and agencies should always have a finger on the pulse of the news cycle, and be nimble enough to course-correct if need be. If they don’t, the “pitches” are likely to “strike out,” and for good reason.